This weekend, I learned a little more about North Dakota history when my mom, three of the kiddos and I visited Ft. Abercrombie Historical Site, about a half-hour south of Fargo.
It wasn’t just any day at the fort, but the 150th commemoration of the siege that took place there when the Dakota people, suffering from starvation, took action to regain control of their lives.
I’m obviously simplifying the story, which is detailed more here.
Though I’m very interested in this piece of our country’s history, what initially brought me here was novelist Candace Simar, whom I’d met in Minnesota last spring.
Her Abercrombie Trail series was a featured part of the day, and I had the opportunity to buy a signed copy of her just-released fourth book in the series, “Blooming Prairie.” (Read more about Candace’s work here.)
But even before we found Candace and her sweet publicist, Krista Rolfzen Soukup, the kids had blazed a trail of their own to the banks of the nearby Wild Rice River.
Apparently, a little rock-throwing was in order. Can anyone blame them?
I didn’t fight the impromptu agenda. Instead, I used the time to discover some of the treasures by the river.
And then our awaited speaker, Tamara St. John, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate archivist, took the microphone and began her talk, “A Dakota Perspective of 1862.” It was very nicely done and really helped bring the visit alive for me.
St. John reminded us of the “complicated history” involved in conflicts between the non-Indian settlers and soldiers and those whose homeland had been invaded. She talked about the forced exile of Dakotas from their land in Minnesota that confined them, eventually, to just a mere strip of land. Eventually, they came to realize no inch of land was safe from those who wished to occupy their home. “The ground under our very feet was wanted,” she said.
I think what I appreciated so much about St. John’s presentation was that it was told from the perspective of a woman. It was the story of a life of domesticity — one that included women, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and yes, the men as well — that came to a screeching halt.
For example, in remains from the nearby Whitestone Hill massacre site, housed now at the Smithsonian, if I recall correctly, items such as baby rattles and peace pipes were found; not the usual artifacts one would consider indicative of a battle involving two sets of willing soldiers. (Whitestone Hill will be commemorated next summer on September 3 near Ellendale, N.D.)
And despite all that has happened in the interim, St. John noted, it’s still on the books that Dakota are not to be in Minnesota. “I was just there recently, however. I went to the Mall of America, like many of you have been,” she said, noting the absurdity of having these restrictions still in place.
In the end, she said, and I nodded as she did, this is the story of survival. After all, there she was in front of us, as real as real could be, proof that the hopes of some that total extermination would happen did not come to be. As I looked at her, just inches away from the front row where we sat, I saw the great-great granddaughter of someone who had toughed it out, despite all the odds.
“This is a difficult history to learn about, even for our own people,” she said, reiterating, “It’s a complicated history and many aspects need to be looked at.”
Indeed, and we will never come to a place of healing if we don’t start doing just that. Today’s as good a day as any, I would say.
Q4U: What are the questions you have about this time in history?